Those who believed that the physical and sexual abuse perpetrated at Abu Ghraib under the US occupation put Bush in the same camp as Saddam have questions to answer. They refuse to rise to the challenge because they know their position is untenable – both morally, and factually. Spoiled children of democracies will always run into the hands of local criminals if it leads to the derision of those who brought them up.
Some more uncomfortable details for them:
The US soldier who murdered 16 Afghan villagers last year has been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Staff Sgt Robert Bales, 40, opened fire on men, children and women during the attack in Kandahar on 11 March 2012.
He pleaded guilty to the massacre in June to avoid the death penalty.
He apologised during his sentencing hearing at a Washington state military base on Thursday, calling the attack an “act of cowardice”.
Sgt Bales had been making a case for why he should one day be eligible for parole, which would have meant he could have been released in 20 years.
The reason Bradley (Chelsea) Manning’s revelations caused such discomfort for humanitarians was because of the American government’s silence on the crimes in which they are now to be indicted; it might not have happened here, thankfully, but unspoken awareness is simply a step away from tacit approval. (No law exists allowing an official in the US government to overthrow other elected presidents, yet Henry Kissinger is still a free man.) It seems like a betrayal, it saddens me to say, in the same league as Pope Benedict’s to his followers, his refusal to cooperate with secular judiciaries on allegations of pedophilia leading to its institutionalisation and the blackened reputation of every humane priest. Justice, it seems, can lose its eternal authority at the whim of politicians courting the approval of their audience.
But, please – perspective.
To demand political transparency is as much a right as an imperative; but compare, for simply a moment, whatever supposed crimes of which the democracy and the dictatorship are charged. Assad’s recent chemical attack outside Damascus is a momentary echo of Saddam’s message to Halabja in 1988. The news of Sgt Bales’ imprisonment, meanwhile, is like valley to desert.
Failures in Iraq say nothing of our urgency to act in Syria.
[Awkward Disclaimer: I didn’t mean this just as a defence of Dawkins. Some New Atheists may or may not have a sectarian obsession with Muslims – but to dismiss every bland generalisation as another instance of racist bigotry is as flippant as it is frivolous.]
Much of the Left, very dazed these days, has turned to the puritanism that Right-wingers seem to have mostly abandoned. With it has come a tendency for the Left to assume that their rivals are driven by the most base, the wickedest, the absolutely worst motivations imaginable: Owen Jones moralising on the Tories is an odd example of this. If one is flippant, he must be callous; if one clarifies his terms only in rhetorical retreat, he is a bigot. Carelessness means racism.
A number of atheists – whose gravitational pull is still mostly liberal – are declaring in chorus their antipathy towards the anti-Muslim bigotry of which they accuse Richard Dawkins. If I might quote Alex Gabriel at the Heresy Club:
The last thing secularism needs is a clash-of-civilisations narrative. The problem with Islam, as with any religion, is that it makes unknowable claims; the problem with Islamism, as well as relying on those unknowable claims, is that it’s theocratic, violent, oppressive and inhumane. To object instead to either, even by implication, on grounds of being culturally alien, foreign, un-British, un-Western or ‘barbarian’ is to racialise the terms of discussion, accepting ahistorically that the so-called ‘Muslim world’ is theocratic by definitive nature, legitimising the U.S.-led militarism which fuels Islamism’s anti-Western appeal, and enforcing the idea those who leave Islam or refuse to practice it hyper-devoutly are cultural and racial traitors – that to be an atheist ex-Muslim or religious moderate is to be a ‘coconut’, brown on the outside but white within.
To illustrate his point he takes Dawkins’ January tweet:
Like Alexandria, like Bamiyan, Timbuktu’s priceless manuscript heritage destroyed by Islamic barbarians http://t.co/D15gFcya Vive la France
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) January 29, 2013
To the inevitable fury, Dawkins clarified on two accounts – first to accusations of selectively targeting Islam:
Xtian barbarians murder abortion doctors. Most Xtians are not barbarians. Stalin was an atheist barbarian. Most atheists are not barbarians.
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) January 29, 2013
And second to those who believed he was treating Muslims like an uncivilised homogeneous bloc:
English is my native language. By “Islamic barbarians” I mean those Muslims who are ALSO barbarians. I do not OF COURSE mean all Muslims!
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) January 29, 2013
Both are important.
To paraphrase Orwell – I think more democratically – to return to basic principles has become the first duty of all serious men; absolutes therefore mustn’t be relegated to the religious or the Utopian fantasist. Calling out those who exist to suppress and to suffocate the values underpinning decent society is the premise to internationalism – not its enemy.
The Incubation of Defeatism
… disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people …
Preamble to The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948
The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights may one day be ranked as the most powerful expression of liberty ever proclaimed, Eleanor Roosevelt famously dreaming it up to be the Magna Carta “of all men everywhere”. It was never expected to be a permanent guarantee of personal freedom, being neither legally binding nor politically enforceable; in a few short years not a single atrocity of note in Palestine, Egypt, Spain, Portugal or Hungary would be prevented with an invocation from the United Nations. What it neglects cries out for remedy, and its simplicity of statement, though a great strength, consistently struggles with the complexities of application. But at no other point in history have nations gathered together to express, however reluctantly, the unfalsifiable authority of personal dignity before fascists, theocrats, and the mass of blandly clichéd authoritarians floating between.
But the hangover throbbed with regret. Not many years after the UN’s proclamation of the “inalienable” rights of free individuals, intellectual anarchism masquerading as “postmodernism” was looking to undermine it. In an age of decolonisation cultural theorists rushed to denounce “humanitaranism” as imperialism for the mellow-minded, fuelling the isolationist rhetoric, to name but one instance, of the odious Ayatollah Khomeini whose government would dismiss the UDHR as the secularised transcription of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Self-doubt, cynicism, and flagrant sadomasochism blurred into one ungodly polygamous marriage striding over millennia of Western philosophy in the name of “relativism”. Its academia sank into a mid-life crisis.
“Good” and “evil” are great secular words. Their dichotomy has transcended many languages and religions, from village to nation, evolving separately in regions of the world that existed for centuries in isolation. I think it’s a mistake, and a great shame, that many atheists and agnostics have decided that we don’t need this sort of moral certainty; that we ought to leave it to the religious to express emotional outrages – because they might fall silent on crimes of which they approve. Secular space is not created; either it is offered by missionaries or it is fought for and captured.
But this rejection of absolutes has lined the mentality of those academics who believe they know better than the “civilised” – that the only true way of building a society is to accept, ultimately, that there isn’t one.
Perhaps this attitude’s most lasting apologia was Edward Said’s sweeping assault on the orientalist tradition in Western scholarship – it was both a symptom and a cause, he believed, that orientalism now only makes sense as the propagandist machine of the imperial project: in engaging in a conscious effort to misrepresent foreign cultures as backward and inferior, a colonial aggressor felt at liberty to “civilise” them. Everyone in the age of imperialism was a racist Euro-supremacist, Said claimed, which he sought to justify – to the disdain of imperial historian Bernard Porter, who has found little evidence in his Absent-Minded Imperialists – in tenuous literary imagery pre-empting paragraph after paragraph of claustrophobic “analysis” before the final write-off of the author in question as a stooge of foreign aggression. (In Culture and Imperialism there’s a very strange passage accusing Jane Austen – whose novels barely even mentioned the Napoleonic Wars – of promulgating labour exploitation through her silence on empire and the emotional withdrawal it apparently represented. See Unrepentant Jacobin’s blog for a brilliant and much more comprehensive post on Saidism.)
Nonetheless, for the all the deficiencies of post-colonialist thought it might still have seemed very reasonable that the earliest victims of Said’s argument were loaded phrases like “barbarianism”. After all, the horrors of African colonialism that some contemporaries justified in the name of “progress” now seem too absurd for serious scholarship; Rudyard Kipling’s infamous The White Man’s Burden charged the English with the ineluctable duty “to serve your captives’ need” and bring barbaric peoples “towards the light”, a path apparently lit by the intermittent fires of war, genocide, ethnic cleansing and enslavement for those who resisted the imposition of rule by gunboat, diocese, and caste. This so-called “liberal” justification for the atrocities – “civilising the savage” – managed to creep even as far as the socialist Fabians, whom Ramsay MacDonald was compelled to abandon when they refused to condemn the Boer Wars.
Considering the long history of “barbarianism” this should hardly have come as a surprise. It doesn’t come from a very politically correct ancient world: the Proto-Indo-European barbar – which pre-empted the Greek barbaros and Latin barbaria for “foreigner” and “foreign country”, respectively – mimics the unintelligible ramblings of an alien. St Augustine would write the lengthy polemic City of God in order to make sense of the fall of great Roman cities to the murderous Alaric; and though the European humanists swore adoration for Rome they never departed from their Gothic and pagan inheritance, understanding better than their ancient forebears that not all “barbarian” cultures could be dismissed without merit. Consider how the conquistadors – the Pope’s military muscle in the New World – saw it their first duty to conquer the native Americans whose immodesty of clothing apparently revealed an equal poverty of the mind.
Given this history and its tradition of merciless ironies, surely – just surely – we wouldn’t be so stupid as to invent our own savages?
Identifying the Barbarian
“Barbarian” and “savage” have not always been purely racial terms.
The reason that every colonial power got it wrong was because they all shared in the same ridiculous presumption: that an individual’s ethnicity made them a barbarian for the sole reason that they had not produced laws as “advanced” of those in whose judgement they sat. Through the adoption of customs originating in the land of the expansionists, they could they become “civilised”. In the classical world this racial link was only implicit, the Franks merrily absorbed into the Roman Empire while the Saxons continuing to appear to be wintry nomads for failing to see any virtue in Italy’s fading pyres. But by the 19th century technological industrialism had dwarfed whatever instruments the “barbarians” could offer; and with the advent of pseudo-sciences in the likes social Darwinism and phrenology this was codified into an explicitly racist set of assumptions about the genetic foundations of “alien” societies.
But in the 17th century there had been something of a respite to this thinking with John Dryden’s pitying indictment of the “noble savage”; although deeply condescending, only now does the phrase appear to be an oxymoron, contemporaries meaning the word “savage” as an equivalent for what we today would supply “person from another country” (though almost certainly with implications of skin colour). As a romanticism of the foreigner whose relationship with nature endowed him with values equivalent to the “civilised” virtues of England, it made a crucial point: foreign customs may indeed be “noble” but that is not a vindication of times in which they are not. Cultural toleration does not have to mean moral relativism. That points towards what today we would identify as religious and ethnic pluralism under a constitution constrained by moral parameters to human rights, and to the civil liberties they predicate.
It is the tradition around Dryden’s sentiments – which seems to have ended before the African conquest from the 1880s – that we have and will build upon in the modern world. The UDHR rules on “inalienable” rights for the very reason that no individual in the world is foreign to them: they are universal, and people are at liberty to demand them if and when they please.
Anybody who therefore uses violence to deprive people of equality from birth, to suppress and fight freedom and preservation of culture and of thought – and to murder for these ends and without remorse – is a barbarian.
That’s not a racial term; it’s written in the preamble to the UN’s greatest cause on a morality that has no bearing on nationality. It doesn’t mean “un-British” or “un-American” but anti-human. The commitment to internationalism and universality that it makes necessary is the very definition of anti-racism.
Fighting the Barbarian
It’s for this reason that it’s so intensely patronising – and very eurocentric – to presume that it’s only privileged white atheists and Christians in the West who hold especial contempt for acts of Islamic jihad:
Horrific and barbaric act in Woolwich. My prayers and condolences go out to victim’s family. How do humans commit such un-human acts?
— Mehdi Hasan (@mehdirhasan) May 22, 2013
That “b” word again – and from a devout Muslim, no less.
The most numerous – and targeted – of all of the victims of Islamic barbarianism are fellow Muslims. It was not a “civilised” person who blew up the al-Askari mosque in 2006, one of the holiest – and most extraordinary – Shi’ah sites in the world:
Massoud’s assassination was an attack, to take but one target, on Afghan women; it would be Muslim Malians who would be deprived of international aid by fanatics objecting to the presence of women in the crowd; it is Syrian and Iraqi Muslims who are currently caught in a conflict all too attractive to clerical fascists leaching on their material poverty and surplus of pessimism. In every case, “barbarian” is the only word that could possibly be used to describe those willing to kill to impose a murderous ideology – one which is alien to fellow Muslims.
“Don’t fuel the fires!”
So why then did Dawkins, unlike Hasan, feel it necessary to add the unnecessary label of “Islamic” to certain acts of cruelty or barbarianism? I would give the following explanation.
It is impossible to imagine how sociology might have developed without the contributions of Max Weber. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit Capitalism posed an historical, and to a degree empirically answerable, question: why was it that Puritan religious countries, rather than their Catholic, Lutheran or Islamic foes, were the first to succeed in developing industrial capitalism? One cannot, he pointed out rather obviously, understand different historical trajectories undergone by societies and their religions without first addressing what distinguished them.
By today’s standards this academic – who wrote lectures stressing the importance of objective scholarship – is a racist.
It has become somewhat fashionable in recent years to dismiss all religions as inherently the same. The atheist sees them all to be false, and therefore always leading to a conviction in man-made ideas which, at their most extreme, can incite believers to commit horrific abuses driven by the presumption that God is on their side.
But are we really to pretend that all religions – and the followers of their respective deities – are the same? That they have neither been shaped nor shaped common social features and shared religious property? Is it racist not to presume that no one religious outlook has anymore tendency to evil than its rivals? Is it possible that the Islamic, or the Judeo-Christian, or the Hindu religions and their respective denominations vary in their general outlooks on the world? In this context, put this tweet:
All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) August 8, 2013
Is it possible that, in fact, it is partly due to common religious principles that Muslim societies have such poor records in education?
In his post, Alex spends some time talking about Dawkins’ connection – both implicit and acknowledged – with the English Defence League and horrid crackpots like Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, Geert Wilders and Pat Condell. He writes:
It should be no surprise these people now claim the Dawkins name-brand in their support: a rhetoric which objects to Islam and Islamism as foreign, alien, un-British, at odds with Western values, barbarian and so on plays straight into their hands – and indeed into Islamists’, who trade on the idea democracy, freedom, human rights and secularity are Western notions, and that adopting them constitutes cultural betrayal.
I won’t condone any support for these people – but that is not say that they have never uttered a word of morally-palatable sense. Just because the right-wing press says it’s true doesn’t mean it isn’t, as Orwell said, which he then explained more fully:
Whenever A and B are in opposition to one another, anyone who attacks or criticises A is accused of aiding and abetting B. And it is often true, objectively and on a short-term analysis, that he is making things easier for B. Therefore, say the supporters of A, shut up and don’t criticise: or at least criticise “constructively,” which in practice always means favourably. And from this it is only a short step to arguing that the suppression and distortion of known facts is the highest duty of a journalist.
The postmodern assumption that religions are “without fundamentals” is an utterly pointless remark: if the corollary that all of a given religion’s followers therefore share nothing in common – rituals, practices, holy sites, books, parables, folk tales or gods – is not then made, then there remains an imperative to identify what is broadly common. Weber looked for the “ideal-type” – the abstract projection of a religious follower from which every actual believer would deviate it some degree, but which would and can be necessary to make empirical arguments.
And demonstrating how these broadly common factors might or might not condone barbaric actions should not be suffocated in case nationalists seize upon them to denigrate entire communities. One can and should point out that parts of the Koran can lead to “barbaric” acts without then endorsing anti-Muslim (and by implication anti-Islamic) sectarianism. If one rejects every point in Wilders Fitna simply because they were intended to justify racist policies, then one leaves some of the most important moral criticisms of religion in the hands of nationalist thugs. That is how the issue is polarised; that is how one stokes a “clash of civilisations”.
Did foreign criticism of the old Tutsi monopoly on Rwandan government cause the Rwandan genocide? Did our disgust with the small number of atrocities committed by Bosnian Muslims mean that we could not also oppose the ethnic cleansing carried out by Serbian forces? Does the evolving – or devolving, perhaps – of the Free Syrian Army into sectarianism prevent us from sending aid to the civilians there, or mean that we have to support Assad’s government?
Indeed, we are above naming any war a “class of civilisations”. It is to elevate atrocities to a level of which they are undeserving: barbarians would replace a society allowing for freedom of conscience with whatever tyranny might arise from their blood-soaked totalitarian insurgency. Most Muslims are on the right side – and it’s a nakedly perverse paradox to say that this was a war initiated by humanitarian principles.
It was not on Dawkins’ orders that Boko Haram – whose name means “Western education is sinful” – declared war on every manifestation of what they see to be “foreign” philosophy, elements including the rights to education sought by most Nigerians, who in turn become traitors for whom the punishment is murder or detonation. Add to these Islamic imperialists the Malian Ansar Dine whose expansionism under the guise of Sharia has hijacked whatever rights the Tuareg might have ever had to self-determination, adding eschatological justification to the region’s still deeply-ingrained problem with slavery. It was the anti-fundamentalist Ahmad Shah Massoud whose assassination at the hands of the Taliban would occur two days before the fall of the Twin Towers; his support for the rights of Afghan women and cultural freedom would allow Islamists to put him as a stooge to “the West”. They have embraced the status of “alien” since it confers religious exaltation.
Nor would any decent New Atheist claim, just as Dawkins does now, that barbarians are all Islamic. The Christian white supremacists of the Ku Klux Klan, torch in hand, murdered and pillaged in aversion to the very first article of the UDHR; the slave labour of High Stalinism was just as evil as that authorised by Tuareg Islamists; say nothing beyond the probable claims of cannibalism within the ranks of the Lord’s Resistance Army; and Orthodox (or perhaps simply highly masculinised) Russians who assault gay pride protesters are, indeed, manifestly wicked. Savagery might be everywhere; but it is not racist to ask whether some religions or non-religious ideologies, more than others, warm to it, and not imperialistic to decry those who embrace it.
“For the union makes us strong!”
So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.
‘Inside the Whale’, George Orwell
I didn’t intend this post to be so long; congratulations if you made it, for thou art a noble savage (and damn you to hell if not). But the problems with New Atheism are not simple-minded instances of bigotry and racism. Dawkins is a clever and eloquent academic who does not need prattling teenagers like me defending him; if he is careless with his language, or if he endorses the bigots rather than whatever few decent points a bigot may have to offer, then he is being provocatively flippant.
It is perfectly possible to conceive of evils as barbarian; it is the first imperative of the internationalist to do so, irrespective of the religions and societies with which he is confronted. The methods of Islamic fanaticism are as alien to the moderates who share their faith. As the clash between Mehdi Hasan and Irshad Manji showed, some Muslims accept that the Koran can incite violence, while others do not; but, as with any decent New Atheist, no moderate would consider extremists “civilised”.
Let’s stop calling legitimate criticism of barbarism – Islamic or not – “racist”. This is very, very important.
Not that I can really contribute much to the BBC’s publicity, but one piece worth highlighting is on a new study revealing some of the evolutionary benefits to sharing and cooperation:
A team from Michigan State University, US, used a model of the prisoner’s dilemma game, where two suspects who are interrogated in separate prison cells must decide whether or not to inform on each other.
In the model, each person is offered a deal for freedom if they inform on the other, putting their opponent in jail for six months. However, this scenario will only be played out if the opponent chooses not to inform.
If both “prisoners” choose to inform (defection) they will both get three months in prison, but if they both stay silent (co-operation) they will both only get a jail term of one month.
The eminent mathematician John Nash showed that the optimum strategy was not to co-operate in the prisoner’s dilemma game.
This study would be worth celebrating in its own right – but it helps to contextualise some of the arguments made by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. If the study’s conclusions are correct – and I stress the weight of the if – then it acts as a practical, rather than visceral, refutation to those who believe in the beneficial qualities of war as a driver for progress.
One will inevitably consider the solipsistic racists expressing contempt for the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in Washington as they naively grapple to appease two parties of God at once. Eretz Yisrael Zionists – paranoid about the implications of a Palestinian state – and anti-Semitic Islamists – to whom a state for Jews is in itself a cause for war – pollute the two camps.
Human actions are only coherent in Darwinian terms. Thus a child-like plea from secular science: the conflict hasn’t worked out for anyone and never will. Stop it. Not that such an argument should be necessary, and not that it would work on zealots. But oh well.
Enjoy the picture.
We’ve seen children crying with joy before the presence of Kim Jong-Un; we’ve seen “ex-gay converts” profess, with equal joy, to have abolished their sinful desires; we’ve seen children playing in the wreckage of a tsunami. Sometimes we are inspired, and in other times we have no choice but to face-palm until it hurts.
But I don’t think we’ve evolved an emotion for President Assad joining instagram:
In fairness to the poor bloke, young rapscallions do keep tearing down his posters. As of yet commentators are unsure why he has become the target of so much harassment.
Sanity is for the mad.
In case the origins of Wadjda were found to be inspiring a little too much liberal wish-wash about the present situation in Saudi Arabia, here’s a brief reminder of how its authorities deal with actual dissent:
A Saudi court sentenced on Monday a rights activist to seven years in jail and 600 lashes for setting up a “liberal” network and alleged insults to Islam, activists said.
“Raef Badawi has been sentenced to seven years in jail and 600 lashes,” lawyer Waleed Abualkhair wrote on his Twitter account, adding that the judge ordered the closure of the website of the Saudi Liberal Network.
He said Badawi, a co-founder of the Saudi Liberal Network, was charged with criticizing the religious police, as well as calling for “religious liberalization.”
Change in Saudi Arabia is going to require more courageous activists – and international support for them – like Badawi if they are to succeed in remolding their society, as Al-Mansour implied in the post linked above. Although the process at the grassroots will take longer, an object of protest can very easily be found in the clerics and officials surrounding the monarchy.
Take Salwa al Mutairi, an ex-politician whose abhorrent obsequiousness to the Medieval traditions is fortunately anomalous in Kuwait; her call for men to be free to “purchase” female sex slaves – if necessary, from refugee camps – was, she says, verified by a number of Saudi clerics:
Mutairi said that during a recent visit to Mecca, she asked Saudi muftis – Muslim religious scholars – what the Islamic ruling was on owning sex slaves. They are said to have told her that it is not haram.
The ruling was confirmed by ‘specialized people of the faith’ in Kuwait, she claimed.
‘They said, that’s right, the only solution for a decent man who has the means, who is overpowered by desire and who does not want to commit fornication, is to acquire jawari.’ Jawari is the plural of the Arabic term jariya, meaning ‘concubine’ or ‘sex slave’.
One Saudi mufti supposedly told Mutairi: ‘The context must be that of a Muslim nation conquering a non-Muslim nation, so these jawari have to be prisoners of war.’
Concubines, she argued, would suit Muslim men who fear being ‘seduced or tempted into immoral behaviour by the beauty of their female servants’.
The most hideous evils are, to better eyes, as ludicrous as they are sterile.
Someone should invite King Abdullah in on the joke.
If you’re looking for insight into Saudi culture – optimism included – you might enjoy this interview with Haifaa Al-Mansour, the writer and director of Wadjda:
I am really looking forward to watching this film – about a Saudi girl’s determination to buy the bike of which her relatives deprive her. A few things stand out for me:
Al-Mansour states, explicitly, that her objectives were never intended to be political, or even polemical. Although she is conscious of the inevitable stirring she will cause in her home country – once it finally reaches the TV sets, cinemas being illegal – her central image is the innocence of childhood, not its corruption; by its nature it contends with something universal to the memories of all other Saudi women. Why is this significant?
It’s together with Al-Mansour’s rather warm appreciation of the ironic that I think justification for optimism might be found:
The post-9/11 Saudi government – suddenly conscious, as if surprised, that Wahhabi Islam might encourage jihadism – has introduced some token reforms to its systems to appease the White House, which though churned turgid by clerical conservatism might anticipate “giant steps” yet to come. Now, one wouldn’t expect subtle developments in how Saudi women view themselves to be recorded – not if, as she implies herself, women feel as invisible as they are.
But here we have a writer – of a comparatively “liberal” background, admittedly – who sees no real importance to a film exploring instances in which humour stands independent from the primitive, totalitarian background that produces it. Does this point to something wider, something shifting? Al-Mansour’s first film depicted a criminal who wore a burka to escape the law, for example, very much in contrast to the likes of Persepolis in which a girl comes of age under the regressing forces of the Islamic Revolution. Tragedy and satirical detachment arise from pessimism, decline; but comic irony is the signal fire of reformism and the nuance of cultural consciousness.
But the reality is, however incompetent Morsi’s administration, many key levers of power – from the judiciary and police to the military and media – are effectively still in the hands of the old regime elites. They openly regard the Muslim Brotherhood as illegitimate interlopers, whose leaders should be returned to prison as soon as possible.
Yet these are the people now in alliance with opposition forces who genuinely want to see Egypt’s revolution brought at least to a democratic conclusion. If Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are forced from office, it’s hard to see such people breaking with neoliberal orthodoxy or asserting national independence, as most Egyptians want. Instead, the likelihood is that the Islamists, also with mass support, will resist being denied their democratic mandate, plunging Egypt into deeper conflict.
The people of Egypt are being mislead. The millions in Cairo can’t be demanding democracy because they aren’t demanding what Milne wants them to demand. They are being passed like a ball between progress and reaction, forces so abstract that no one would ever dare to question their existence.
Milne’s stress on the importance of leadership is hardly refutable; but his argument, funnily, is the very same employed by Tony Cliff when he justified the bureaucratisation of International Socialism to the closed clique of the Socialist Workers Party. As early as the 1960s Cliff had been panicking about the “danger that we’ll become mindless militants. It’s true that theory without action is sterile, but activity without theory is blind.” What they really want is the old Stalinist image of “democratic centralism” – elect whomever you please. Provided they’re far left prophets – or, for Milne, anti-American demagogues hungry for “national independence”.
Why, man, why?
The narrative in which Communist sympathisers flirted with the far right is well-rehearsed (see Cohen’s oft-quoted What’s Left?); Milne, shamelessly predictable as he courts it.
Since the fall of their mother country, Soviet apologists have only be able to defend their credibility by shedding their old rhetoric and instead donning the bland uniform of the guerrilla journalist. “Capitalism”, once the umbrella for all modern evils, has been secularised to “neoliberalism”. “Imperialism” has broken free of its Leninist principles and come to mean any action undertaken by any member of any American government. The West is out to get them. One imagines their self-worth: a Jesuit missionary traversing the winter of the Elizabethan Reformation to save whatever lost pilgrims he can – and so if it requires petty alliances with the far right, then so be it. The means justify the ends. And not even a trace of irony.
Plenty of contradictions though. (They love them.) Liberal democracy and imperialism are – to any sane observer – irreconcilable; granting sovereignty to a people, in principle, guarantees their right to self-determination. No, no, not to the truther crowd; no because everything’s Orwellian and war is slavery or ignorance and peace or something (they don’t know what they mean so I’ll be damned if I’m going to try). Democracy is most certainly not democratic. You’re no doubt seeing some milder parallels with the lunatic Alex Jones here. Other signed-up members include Galloway, Greenwald, the Stop the War Coalition, Respect and even some of the Greens.
Solidarity with the Sheeples!
It really won’t do.
The most obvious are the European revolutions of 1848, which were also led by middle-class reformers and offered the promise of a democratic spring, but had as good as collapsed within a year. The tumultuous Paris upheaval of May 1968 was followed by the electoral victory of the French right. Those who marched for democratic socialism in east Berlin in 1989 ended up with mass privatisation and unemployment. The western-sponsored colour revolutions of the last decade used protesters as a stage army for the transfer of power to favoured oligarchs and elites. The indignados movement against austerity in Spain was powerless to prevent the return of the right and a plunge into even deeper austerity.
Notice: not “Western-supported” or “with Western sympathies” but “Western-sponsored“. What a slimy euphemism. It apparently doesn’t matter that there aren’t any figures to paint them as Western-funded; for Milne and his crew, there’s no distinction between the media against whom he believes he’s fighting – despite being himself a part of it – and the “ruling classes” who keep stealing his proletariat revolutions.
Instead, the Egyptian people are informed of the “democratic mandate” behind Morsi. He might not have their full support – but, you know, at least he’s opposed to “neoliberalism”, right?
Morsi and the Democrats
It might not be true of me – or indeed many people on the left at all – but the Washington consensus of the 1980s made one principle very clear; the left’s support for regulated markets and for rampant trade unionism, across the world, led neoliberalism to be associated with liberty. I’d be interested to here whether this is still a view on the grounds in Egypt – but it is certainly true that one does not lightly grapple with the state’s economic machinery; and an Islamist attempting to promote his democratic credentials would not be inclined to be hostile to the free market.
There’s a reason for this, one might imagine: Morsi might have been hoping to consolidate his position before discontent could bring him down. His November declaration enhanced his personal power, effectively removing any and all legal constraints. It might indeed be true that this would have been necessary for any post-Mubarak president operating in a system filled with the ex-dictator’s bureaucrats; but a genuine democrat promotes citizens within the system. He does not simply pretend the system does not exist. Wael Eskandar at Notes from the Underground has some great analysis here.
Islamism is a necessarily authoritarian ideology because it is the assumption, backed by the state, that one religion should take precedence over all others; it was the First Amendment more than anything that separated the United States from the history of absolutism, from state certainty and moral directorship. No amount of fresh makeup can make pleasant the hideous grooves of clerical fascism.
With thanks to Shiraz Socialist – here are some of the 22 million “elites” celebrating:
But they celebrated in 2011
Indeed they did.
But another common factor, without which neither “coup” could have taken place, took it upon itself to promote the popular voice once again. As I said a few days ago:
A lingering fear does of course persist: the Egyptian army now holds more authority there than Turkey’s did under Atatürk. Protesters in Tahrir Square demand Morsi step-down; it’s not the constitution to which they are opposed. Rhetoric, though, screams revolution – worryingly fitting given a military presence forced to live up to the expectations it has set itself. (There is currently speculation that the presidential palace is being left unguarded.) 32% is a low approval rating, but one not a lot lower than David Cameron’s in the UK.
I can’t give my support to the Egyptian army – only its objectives, if they are as benign as they suggest. For the democratic socialist, and indeed perhaps all democrats, “paternalism” is as shifty as it is shallow: no matter how honest its leadership, the distinction between a government that is benevolent and one which is democratic and popular closes in the minds of those handful who believe they control a country’s fate. Did they allow a dictator to survive office for decades simply because hardly anyone had protested?
And that’s excluding a military leadership with ulterior motives. Any commentator should be concerned by the recent imprisonment of Brotherhood officials; it’s not freedom of speech if dependent on the merry laws of expedience and convenience. A citizen’s army is not inconceivable; but, for now, Egypt needs to hope that the military’s undemocratic activities are short-lived, as ephemeral as the the gulf between political rules – an interruption begun and made inevitable by popular revolution.
If it is true that Egypt has avoided the bloody martyrs now littering Syria, then – I don’t know? Is there room for a little optimism?